The Marta train screeched to a halt, I pulled out my headphones, telescoped the handle of my expertly packed luggage, and mechanically proceeded to collect my boarding pass at the carry-on-only kiosk before breezing into the south terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. It was my Friday routine, and I was going through the motions without thinking or feeling.
I looked down to check the departure gate when I stopped suddenly in my tracks. I realized that nearly six years ago to the date my boarding pass had the same airport codes blazoned across the top, ATL-MAD, and yet on this day everything was different.
Flashback to August 24, 2009. I didn’t sleep a wink the night before, I was too excited. I was going to Europe for the first time, and to Spain no less, the country that had been my dream destination since a high school summer trip was cancelled following 9/11. It was only my second time flying standby, but back then we didn’t worry much about flight loads. The economy was still recovering, so we didn’t think twice about whether the two friends we had in tow would make the flight on buddy passes. Rufio and I were in the throes of young love, and gallivanting around the world together was proving to build our relationship strong and fast. My stomach was filled with butterflies.
Fast forward to 2015, and there I stood motionless in the terminal, smirking to myself like a lunatic. I was trying to make a flight to Madrid for an impromptu girl’s weekend with my best friend, a trip most people would consider impossible. Earlier in the day my coworker excitedly pressed for details, and I said in a very passé way, “eh, I probably won’t make the flight”. She remarked that it was just exciting that I even had the option to try. I shrugged my shoulders and told her if she didn’t see me on Monday she would know I made it. I now wondered, had I really become so numb that the thought of crossing the Atlantic just for a weekend getaway no longer left me sleepless?
As I made my way to the gate I began to reflect. I may have started taking the flights for granted, but travel still inspired my every day. I began to realize how different I was now and how much I had learned over these last six years. Sure I learned practical skills, like how to pack for 14 days in a carry-on, but this chaotic “non-rev” life has taught me so many valuable lessons that seep into every aspect of my life, not just travel. There are many, but in honor of my 6 year “nonrev-a-versary”, here are the 6 greatest lessons I’ve learned from standby travel.
My wanderlust began many years before I met Rufio, but I was still very much in the “travel is too expensive” camp to be traveling as much as I should have back then. Gaining access to cheap flights was a great start to overcoming that barrier, but as we all know traveling requires more than just a plane ticket. There were still accommodations, food, drinks, ground transportation, admission tickets and much more to pay once the plane touched down. If I was going to take full advantage of my flight perks, I needed to figure out how to pay for the rest on my meager salary. After bills and savings, my travel budget was going to be my priority, which meant other costs needed to be kept to a minimum.
I learned how to set and stick to a tight budget at home. Things like clothes and shoes were only purchased when needed, and never at full price. Luxuries like manicures and highlights went out the window, except on the rare special occasion. I learned where to buy the cheapest produce and how to meal prep for the entire week to save on food costs.
Even with those savings I needed to be frugal when traveling too. We relied on services such AirBnB or the Priceline “Name Your Own Price Tool” to keep accommodation prices down. Cheap street food filled my belly for most meals (plus it tastes better anyway). I opened credit cards that earned miles and travel rewards for everyday purchases and bill pay. We joined rewards programs for every hotel group and rental car company we used. These financial skills were developed out of necessity, but are lessons I will continue to implement in life even when I’m rich and famous…er, if I ever make more than a meager salary.
The nature of standby travel doesn’t allow us to plan like other travelers. Advanced booking does not exist to us. Strict itineraries are incomprehensible. You just have to roll with the punches, which is something every type of traveler could benefit from understanding.
Just “winging it” (plane pun!) has become second nature to us, which is great because in life not everything goes according to plan. We can now readily adapt to any situation, which is pertinent for keeping stress to a minimum. I can’t begin to count the times I’ve seen travelers throw a hysterical fit when a flight is delayed or cancelled. Learning to expect the unexpected keeps you calm, cool and collected when things are out of your control, and in travel, things are always out of your control.
Patience might be a virtue, but it has never been one of mine. Sometimes I eat my lunch lukewarm because I can’t stand to add an extra minute on the microwave (sad, but true). However, if there is one thing standby travel will teach you, it’s to be patient.
Standby travelers are told time and again to wait. Wait until your name is called. Wait until the next flight. Wait until tomorrow. Sometimes the waiting feels endless, but it’s the price we pay for the opportunity to board.
In the last few years I have noticed a marked decline in my hot-tempered moments, something I attribute to my newly improved ability to remain patient. This has a positive impact on my relationships with others and my overall level of stress. It has certainly been a benefit in dealing with difficult people at work, which helps me immensely in my career. It’s one of those things that make you a better person overall, and without this standby life I may have never learned it. I’m still not putting another minute on the microwave, though!
When our plane departed from Atlanta one day before the Women’s World Cup Final, we didn’t have a place to sleep, tickets to the match or transportation from Seattle to Vancouver. What we did have was an open flight, and that was all the persuasion we needed.
I’ve always been a bit capricious, but the last six years have really made me something of a wildcard. In my eyes, every open seat is an opportunity for adventure, and when those opportunities come my way I gladly take them. This “up for anything” mentality has translated into other areas of my life, too. From special projects at work to this blog, when I see an opportunity to have a new experience, I take it.
I think being spontaneous is something everyone could benefit from doing more often. Routines are necessary, but every once in a while we could all stand to just get up and go wherever the road takes us. You never know what you’ll find, and what other lessons you might learn, if you just take a chance.
When I was a little girl I had a Carmen Sandiego passport, I think it came as the toy in a kid’s meal. For a summer it was my favorite possession. I would pretend I was a CIA agent or archeologist or international superstar, crisscrossing the globe on some wild adventure or another. I set a goal to visit 100 countries, and dreamed of all the wonderful things I might see.
Fast forward a quarter of a century, and my passport, legal now, is still my favorite possession. In just over two months I’ll have visited over 30 countries, making it a third of the way to my goal with no end in sight. How many people get to see their childhood fantasies become reality?
You might think that my wanderlust would begin to wane with each new passport stamp. Like I mentioned, I don’t always get those butterflies in my stomach when I board a flight anymore, but the passion and curiosity is still very much there. A few years ago I made a “travel bucket list” where Rufio and I each put down our top 10 places to visit. We’ve since marked out a number of those items, but miraculously the list hasn’t grown any shorter. Each road we take seemingly leads to another. We were on a great white shark diving boat in South Africa when one of the crew said, “You know where you should go? Salmon shark diving in Alaska.” The list grew a little longer that day, and so it goes.
The travel bug has no cure, and for that I’m thankful. Wanderlust is an insatiable curiosity that leads to immense learning and personal growth. I have learned more about geography, history, ecology, conservation, gastronomy, astronomy, economics, politics, religion, social justice…you name it…in my travels than in all my years of formal education, and I never want my education to end.
We may smirk and put on airs when our friends remark on our lavish travel lifestyle, but in reality we are incredibly humbled by this privilege. When I look around, especially on long-haul flights, I know that some of the other passengers have worked and saved a long time just to be sitting next to me, the girl who just showed up to the airport because she could.
It’s not just the flights, though. We have in a short time amassed so many experiences and memories many only dream of, and we have many more years to go. Yes, we could travel hack or backpack our way around the world, but having this standby privilege allows us to follow our career goals and our life passions concurrently. Not many people get to do that, and with each passing flight I grow to appreciate this life more and more.
Traveling standby can be both exhilarating and frustrating. Remember that impromptu girl’s weekend in Madrid? I didn’t make the flight. Rufio met me at the gate after work and took me out to dinner at trendy new pop-up restaurant in an area of town we never get to explore. We decided to be travelers in our own town that night.
I had a chance, an opportunity to spend two short days interpreting Picasso paintings and eating tapas across the sea, and I took that chance despite the odds. It didn’t work out, but in life things don’t always work out so we make the best of what we’re given, and that might really be the greatest life lesson standby travel can teach.
What life lessons have you learned in your travels? Leave a comment below!
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